Congress Ramps Up War on Sex Workers and Their Customers With Secret Votes on Four New ‘Protection’ Laws

By Elizabeth Nolan Brown, Reason

 

While seemingly preoccupied this week with criminal justice reform and avoiding a government shutdown, Congress also authorized a national strategy for arresting sex buyers and approved the use of secret
wiretaps in misdemeanor prostitution cases.

The national plan to “end demand” for prostitution was part of the massive “Frederick Douglass Trafficking Victims Prevention and Protection Reauthorization Act,” which cleared the Senate Monday through a secret vote of the sort civil libertarians have long opposed.

Congress is now “strengthening federal efforts” to be tough on sex buyers, based on the false idea that customers of consenting adult sex workers drive demand for minors. All state and local cops, prosecutors, and judges are to be trained on “best practices for prosecuting buyers” of sex and how to use asset forfeiture in these cases. A federal working group on the study of sex-buyer arrests will also be created, and grants related to human trafficking must include language encouraging those working on demand-reduction efforts to apply.

In addition, Congress “clarif[ies] that commercial sexual exploitation is a form of gender-based violence,” whatever that means.

“Any comprehensive approach to eliminating sex and labor trafficking must include a demand reduction component,” states the bill, which passed the Senate Tuesday after clearing the House in July 2017.

The House also passed the bill via “voice vote,” a process under which there’s neither a record of how members voted, whether they were present for a vote, nor how many total members actually voted. Voice votes—also known as unanimous consent agreements—can be contested by a member demanding a regular vote. This week, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) has been demanding recorded votes on a slew of measures in the House.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R–Ky.) was using the process to usher through four bills at the intersection of law enforcement, human rights, bureaucracy building, and foreign
diplomacy. In addition to the Frederick Douglass Act (H.R. 2200, with no separate Senate version), the following bills also passed the Senate by unanimous consent on Monday:

The chambers are now resolving differences on all three before sending them to President Donald Trump for signing. The total package includes a mixed bag of policies and funding priorities.

FINE PRINT

Tucked in some tiny sections are significant changes, some that go way beyond human trafficking. For instance, a section of S. 1311 would allow state law enforcement to use secret wiretaps on sex workers and their customers.

A part of S.1312 “amends the federal criminal code to broaden the authority of the U.S. Secret Service to provide forensic and investigative assistance to state and local law enforcement agencies by allowing assistance in support of any investigation—not just an investigation involving missing or exploited children.” [Emphasis mine]

Another “amends the federal criminal code to authorize the Department of Justice (DOJ) to bring a civil action to stop or prevent criminal offenses related to suspected forced labor, sex trafficking, or sexual abuse.” This would give the DOJ more leeway to preemptively shut down businesses while building a criminal case.

One provision essentially creates a new federal crime initiative by directing resources and money to fight “sextortion.” Among other (expanded) missions, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children will now teach school kids, cops, and staff about the dangers of “sexting and sextortion,” too.

The measures include grant money for new programs aimed at school resource officers, teachers, and students that purportedly teach the signs of sex trafficking.

And they set aside more money for Customs and Border Protection “to expand outreach and live on-site anti-trafficking training for airport and airline personnel”—efforts that have thus far yielded a host of high-profile stories about profiling interracial families and not a single confirmed story involving actual sex traffickers.

On average, however, there’s actually less sex-trafficking panic in these bills than similar measures we’ve been seeing this century, with way fewer references to inflated and debunked statistics. The End Demand element notwithstanding, there’s also less conflation of sex work that adults freely engage in and forced prostitution of adults or minors.

Congress instructs the Justice Department to develop better training with regard to “limiting arrests or prosecutions of trafficking victims for crimes they commit as a direct result” of being victimized, and to
award grants to groups that prioritize this approach.

Senators also rejected the part of a House-approved measure that required traveling federal employees to stay at hotels “with certain policies relating to child sexual exploitation.”

In addition, a host of transparency-related provisions are potentially good.

For nearly two decades, the feds have been
leading and supporting anti-human-trafficking efforts with little accounting for the money and time spent or the results. Now, Congress is instructing DOJ to report on the methodology it uses “to assess the prevalence of human trafficking.” In addition, federal crime reports are instructed to start measuring instances of child-labor violations, assisting or promoting prostitution arrests, and solicitation for commercial sex arrests.

Congress tells the FBI to “publish a status report on the Innocence Lost National Initiative,” a nationwide effort, coordinated with local police, that has operated largely in secret for more than a decade. It’s the initiative behind the FBI’s annual Operation Cross Country, which I have written about in detail. The data Congress requested is information my former colleague Lauren Krisai and I have sought to get from the FBI, with no luck.

Congress also tells the government-funded-but-FOIA-exempt National Center for Missing and Exploited Children “to make publicly available the annual report on missing children and the incidence of attempted child abductions.”

And it asks for more accountability from Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) about trafficking-related investigations. HSI is involved in all sorts of prostitution stings around America, especially ones involving Asian massage parlors.

A large part of the legislation is concerned with the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons report, which places countries into one of three tiers based on how well we think they’re doing to counter sex and labor trafficking. Bad rankings on this list can affect a country’s business dealings, reputation, and eligibility for various U.S. programs. Historically, the TIP report has been used as a political tool and is ripe for abuse. In the new legislation, Congress offers more guidelines for placing countries in which tier, how they’re moved between them, and what counts as “credible information” for purposes of determining their rank.

Overall, there’s a lot of overlapping instruction and redundancy in the four bills approved in the Senate Monday. Perhaps they could have benefited from full attention by the legislature instead of McConnell rushing them through under secret votes right before a holiday break.

But the fact that he was able to do that underscores something interesting. For at least a decade, lawmakers have made a big deal about introducing, supporting, and passing bills related to sex trafficking. Interestingly, there was little fanfare from folks in Congress about the passage of these measures. It seems that when these efforts aren’t full of sex panic and high-profile targets like Backpage, there’s little glory in claiming credit for them.

Read more:

Better than Backpage/Craigslist

How to beat any prostitution sting (10 easy steps to spot-stay ahead of LE)

Backpage Alternatives

How to De Criminalize Prostitution for Dummies

Sex Work Is Work—And Its Laborers Are Officially Unionizing

Sex Work Should be Legal — If Only to Protect Women from Police

FOSTA sex trafficking law becomes center of debate about tech responsibility

By Anna R. Schecter and Dennis Romero, NBC

A law meant to stop sex trafficking — lauded by Ivanka Trump, signed into law by her father in April, and championed by members of Congress who have been working for years to crack down on bad actors like Backpage.com — is now being challenged by tech company advocates and internet rights groups who say it violates the First Amendment.

The tech industry-funded nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) will urge a federal judge Thursday to stall enforcement of the law, known as FOSTA-SESTA, which holds websites accountable if they knowingly facilitate criminal activity like human trafficking that happens on their platforms. (FOSTA is short for the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, and SESTA is the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act.)

While FOSTA-SESTA was hailed as a victory by many advocates for survivors of sex trafficking, some in the tech community have pushed back on the law over concerns that the government is moving to require tech companies to censor the internet.

Prior to passage of FOSTA-SESTA, tech companies had widely been protected against being held liable for any illegal content or business conducted on their platforms.

"FOSTA attacks online speakers who speak favorably about sex work by imposing harsh penalties for any website that might be seen as 'facilitating' prostitution or 'contribute to sex trafficking,'” EFF said in a press release.

EFF’s lawyer arguing the case, Robert Corn-Revere, has previously represented Backpage.com, a website that was shut down by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and its CEO Carl Ferrer, who pleaded guilty in three state courts to money laundering and conspiracy to facilitate prostitution.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, one of the architects of the law, said this is not a free speech issue but instead about protecting victims of sex trafficking.

“Victims of this abhorrent crime can finally have their day in court and the websites that knowingly facilitate sex trafficking are being shut down and being held liable for their actions,” he said. Portman led a 20 month U.S. Senate investigation that found Backpage complicit in trafficking. He says the shuttering of Backpage.com, which he called the “industry leader in sex trafficking,” is a victory.

Prior to passage of FOSTA-SESTA, Backpage’s defense in response to charges that it proliferated prostitution and trafficking was that it's not responsible for ads posted on the site. That argument is based on Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which says online service providers cannot be held liable for content provided by third parties.

After the law passed, Craiglist shut down its “personals” section.

FOSTA-SESTA is a definitive turning point for the internet and holds platforms accountable in an unprecedented way. EFF’s constitutional challenge is championed by those who complain FOSTA-SESTA could create an advantage for bigger companies with the technology and money to make sure that their platforms comply with the law.

“Every effort to turn platforms into content police favors the well-established, well-capitalized platforms,” said Mike Godwin, senior fellow at the nonprofit research firm R Street Institute and the former general counsel for Wikimedia Foundation. “If you are a startup, you now have to hire a thousand lawyers and contract workers to screen content.”

But longtime advocate for survivors of child sex trafficking, Mary Mazzio, said EFF’s constitutional challenge is disingenuous.

"The child sex trafficking survivors, along with the community of adult survivors, nonprofits, and NGOs who fought for the passage of FOSTA-SESTA, are dismayed to find that EFF, which began a disinformation campaign prior to the bill’s passage, has continued its relentless assault on any attempt to hold websites accountable that engage in criminal conduct," Mazzio said.

Read more:

Better than Backpage/Craigslist

How to beat any prostitution sting (10 easy steps to spot-stay ahead of LE)

Backpage Alternatives

How to De Criminalize Prostitution for Dummies

Sex Work Is Work—And Its Laborers Are Officially Unionizing

Sex Work Should be Legal — If Only to Protect Women from Police